Caffeine: pros and cons

The typically Italian coffee ritual can have positive and negative effects on health. Caffeine, the natural stimulant par excellence which is the active ingredient of the most consumed drink in the world, but also of other drinks and  foods , is often known for the negative effects resulting from its intake (beyond the recommended daily limit). In fact, caffeine is associated with sleep disorders , tachycardia and anxiety . However, studies also report that it has various health benefits .


What is caffeine?

Caffeine is the natural stimulant most commonly found in tea, coffee, and cocoa plants . It works by stimulating the brain and central nervous system , helping you stay alert and fight fatigue . Caffeinated soft drinks hit the market in the late 1800s, and energy drinks soon followed . Currently, 80% of the world’s population consumes a caffeine-containing product every day. The  dose not to exceed of caffeine in a daily diet is 300 mg , approximately three cups of espresso coffee or 6 cups of tea.


Caffeine: what effects?

How does caffeine work on the body? Once consumed, caffeine is rapidly absorbed from the intestine  and then enters the bloodstream : it takes about 20 minutes. Within an hour the beneficial effects are felt, but also the related disorders in poorly tolerant subjects. From there, it is transferred to the liver and broken down . The main effect of caffeine is on the brain: it works by blocking the effects of adenosine , which is a neurotransmitter that relaxes the brain and makes you feel tired. Adenosine levels build up throughout the day, causing drowsiness . Caffeine helps you stay awake and alert by connecting to adenosine receptors in the brain without activating them. This blocks the effects of adenosine, reducing tiredness . It can also increase levels of adrenaline in the blood and increase brain activity of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine .

This combination further stimulates the brain and promotes a state of arousal , alertness and concentration . Because it affects the brain, caffeine is often referred to as a psychoactive drug .

Where is caffeine found?

Not just coffee and tea. Caffeine is a stimulant that is also found in other foods and drinks:

  • Espresso:  240–720 mg
  • Coffee:  102-200 mg
  • Yerba mate :  65-130 mg
  • Energy drinks:  50-160 mg
  • Tea:  40-120 mg
  • Decaffeinated coffee :  3–12 mg
  • Hot chocolate:  2-7 mg
  • Chocolate milk :  2-7 mg

Some foods also contain caffeine. For example, a portion (about 30 grams) of milk chocolate contains 1-15 mg, while dark chocolate contains 5-35 mg. You can find caffeine in some prescription or over-the-counter medications such as cold , allergy , and pain medications . It is also a common ingredient in  weight loss supplements .

Like any other food, coffee has storage times , be careful not to exceed them.

Caffeine: the concentration changes depending on the way the coffee is prepared

It is not correct to talk about “caffeine in a cup of coffee“. The way in which coffee is prepared, in addition to the quality of the raw material, affects the amount of caffeine in the coffee. In summary: it is lower in soluble, intermediate in espresso, high in classic moka and high in unfiltered coffee or coffee obtained with gravimetric percolation, Neapolitan style.

Benefits of caffeine

Caffeine, if taken within the recommended daily doses and if it is not poorly tolerated by the body, has beneficial effects for health, such as:

  • improves mood and brain function;
  • blocks adenosine, the brain signaling molecule;
  • stimulates brain functions;
  • improves concentration and reaction time ;
  • reduces the risk of brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s ;
  • increases metabolism and burns fat ;
  • improves psychomotor activity, athletic performance  and resistance to sleep and fatigue.

Negative effects of caffeine

Caffeine, especially in overdose and if taken by subjects with little tolerance to the active ingredient, has contraindications . Especially if taken on an empty stomach , it can cause heartburn and  stomach acidity ,  esophagitis  and  gastroesophageal reflux . It can cause  tachycardia , hypertension and arrhythmias. It has an anxiety-provoking effect and causes  tremors , insomnia and excitability, headache , irritability and hot flashes. By reducing the absorption of calcium  and  iron , it favors the appearance of  osteoporosis  and  anemic conditions.

Caffeine also affects a type of insomnia linked to concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic: coronasomnia .

Taking caffeine with alcohol can lead to further harm to your health.

When not to drink coffee

There are physical and/or pathological conditions that worsen with the intake of caffeine, which is therefore advisable to avoid or consume in minimal doses:

  • peptic ulcer
  • dyspepsia
  • hypersecretory gastritis
  • reflux disease
  • hypercholesterolemia
  • ischemic heart disease
  • arterial hypertension  and cardiac arrhythmias
  • pregnancy (no more than two cups a day)
  • fibrocystic mastopathy